Lying on the exact spot in the Harland and Wolff shipyards where the most famous ship in history was constructed, the incredible Titanic Belfast exhibition has recently been voted the world’s leading tourist attraction. I finally got to visit it this week, on the day marking the anniversary of her tragic end.
The eight-storey museum is the same height as Titanic’s hull and has been built to resemble a ship’s prow. The extraordinary design, with its 3000 aluminium plates glinting in the sun, has become an iconic and instantly recognisable symbol of the city. Much like Bilbao’s Guggenheim, the building is now the unofficial trademark of the city and dominates the skyline, sitting at the end of the slipway where Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic, were launched.
The exhibition itself is divided into nine separate galleries and spread across the 130,000 sq ft of space, charting the development of the ship from its conception to its ill-fated maiden voyage.
Entering into the first gallery, you’re greeted by the sights and sounds of Belfast at the turn of the century. Floor to ceiling photographs from the era are brought to life by projections of superimposed silhouettes of the city’s people going about their daily lives.
Already home to hugely successful cotton and linen industries, it was only when Harland and Wolff established their shipyard here, covering 300 acres and eventually employing over 15,000 people, that Belfast really started enjoying its golden age.
The museum’s recreation of the shipyard that built the super liners of the day is extraordinary. Along with the physical exhibits and an interactive floor showing the Titanic’s blueprints, you are also treated to a ride through the shipyards themselves. Sitting in a cradle, you’re carried around the various parts of the construction process, experiencing the heat and noise endured by the workers.
The ride gives you some idea of the conditions these men had to work in, which were so cramped and oppressive that even Apple would balk at them.
The hardest job of all was that of the riveters. Of the three million rivets holding the steel plates of Titanic together, three quarters were fixed by hand. Rivet crews were made up of four men: one would heat the rivet until it was white hot and then throw it to the catcher to hold in place, while two men on the other side of the plate would beat it into position with hammers. The best crews had a left and a right-handed man to alternate the hammering.
A total of eight men died during the construction. Shipbuilding policy at the time allowed for 1 death per £100,000 spent. So, as Titanic cost £1.5 million, a mere eight was deemed perfectly acceptable.
At 12.13pm on 31st May 1911, after two years of construction, the heaviest man-made object ever moved was launched. Under a clock stopped at the precise launch time, you can see a 3D map of the historic dock and slipway.
The one thing you won’t see in any of the galleries in this exhibition is any artefact taken from the wreck itself. The museum decided from the outset to treat the Titanic as a gravesite, and as such to would leave it undisturbed. However, here you can see a great collection of articles from the White Star Line, including recreations of the first, second and third class accommodation on board. This gallery also has one of the real highlights of the tour–an immersive, IMAX-style virtual tour of the whole ship, from boiler room to bridge. The vertigo-inducing trip through the different levels is almost worth the price of the ticket on its own.
The Maiden Voyage
Even today, some 104 years later, parts of the exhibition remain deeply affecting. This is the first time you get to meet some of the people who were on board and read about their stories. The people going to seek work in America, the children accompanying parents, the boiler room worker taking the place of a friend so he could stay home for the birth of his child. We see a letter written on board by a doctor, found in his wife’s coat when she made it to New York alone. It gets quite eerie as you take the route from Belfast to Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown and then out into the Atlantic.
This is the simplest gallery in the exhibition. There are no special effects, rides or interactive exhibits. Just an animation of the last few hours of the Titanic and displays of the desperate telegraph exchanges between the sinking ship and those racing to help. It all serves to put a human side to the tragedy. There are audio interviews with some of the survivors playing in the background, but other than that it’s completely silent. Visitors too are especially quiet in this gallery. No one seems to want to say a word as they walk around the exhibits.
Following the wall of white lifebelts past the replica lifeboat, you find out the fate of the people you read about earlier in the exhibition–their tales of incredible heroism and the accounts of some of the passenger’s last moments: Ben Guggenheim exemplifying Victorian stiff-upper-lip-edness when, realising he wasn’t going to be rescued, changed into evening wear. “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen…No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”
Myths and Reality
There are very few events in history that have captured the imagination of the world like the sinking of the Titanic. The largest, most luxurious ship ever built, on her maiden voyage and deemed unsinkable. The supposed arrogance of man against nature. The noble sacrifices of those who believed in ‘women and children first’. This gallery brings us up to the present day with some of the films, plays and books portraying this most intriguing of human dramas. And best of all, Celine Dion is kept to an absolute minimum with the shortest possible clip of that bloody song!
Explore the wreck of the Titanic, sitting some 12,500ft below the surface of the north Atlantic. The theatre shows ROV footage of the ship, still surprisingly intact after 100 years on the sea bed. Seeing the prow first emerge out of the dark blue is enough to give you goose bumps, but not as much as the items you find in the debris field it left behind. As she sank, Titanic drifted to the bottom on a shallow plane, scattering wreckage over a vast area. The things she left behind are still recognisable today–items of clothing, crockery and even shoes still sit there.
Belfast is still rightly proud of its finest creation and it should be equally proud of the museum they’ve built to commemorate her tragically short life. The whole place has a feeling of immense respect and reverence, not only to the ship itself, but even more so to the people who made it possible.
The Titanic was the greatest triumph of engineering of the day, destroyed by bad luck and arrogance. Or, as my taxi driver put it, “Built by the Irish. Sunk by the English!”